For a film or TV composer, the most difficult assignments are often documentaries. There is usually very little money, and finding the right tone and musical approach can be a weeks- or months-long challenge.
Three of this year’s entries in the Emmy category for original documentary score are exemplary for their musical depiction of people and places: John Powell’s music for “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” about the actor and his Parkinson’s condition; Blake Neely’s score for “Pamela, a Love Story,” about former “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson; and Erica Procunier’s music for the three-part nature series “Great Lakes Untamed.”
“Still” was the first doc ever tackled by Powell, whose big-screen scores include the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy and the “Bourne” action series, and who wanted to work with director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”).
“Davis wanted music that was joyful, that was celebrating a life,” Powell says of the Apple+ film. Guggenheim told him that when Fox agreed to do the doc, the “Family Ties” star insisted “no violins” – apparently concerned that a string section might sentimentalize scenes of Fox’s growing physical difficulties as a result of Parkinson’s disease.
Powell settled on an 11-piece ensemble that included guitars, keyboards, harp and clarinet (and, intriguingly, two violins), for a “musically transparent” sound. He spent “four or five months (and) treated it like an opera or concert work.”
Neely’s approach to Netflix’s “Pamela, a Love Story,” was different. “I wanted it to be synthetic, because I was going for an ’80s, ’90s pop sound,” reflecting the era when she became a star, Neely says. “I felt like strings and woodwinds would be too much. It’s not a sad story, and to put strings or an oboe under her just didn’t work for me.”
This was Neely’s 10th film for director Ryan White (“The Case Against 8,” “Good Night Oppy”) who, the composer says, “loves music.” So the 112-minute film has about 85 minutes of music, all played by Neely on piano and synths. “It was all about trying to find warm sounds; I thought live musicians might feel a little bit saccharine.”
He also liked the “hopeful ending” of the Anderson story, as she stars in the “Chicago” revival on stage, but as often happens in documentary filmmaking, that ending came at the last minute, as the team was shooting that while he was scoring.
Canadian composer Procunier (“Ghostwriter”) scored an estimated 145 minutes of music for the Smithsonian Channel doc “Great Lakes Untamed” in about three months, a huge job for the three-hour film about the five-lake watershed shared by the U.S. and Canada.
“The music really had to take on all the different personalities of the water itself, the inertia of this massive force,” she says. “I was tasked with not only the diversity of the ecosystems but the range of how the water changes over its whole journey, how it changed and progressed.”
Procunier created most of the score in her studio (“five minutes away from Lake Huron,” she notes) but added guitar, fiddle and cello for an “organic, of-the-earth feeling.” Her main theme, she added, needed to be “flexible but powerful and recognizable” for use throughout the series.
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